Aaron Sorkin Explains Why Profanity Is Sometimes Necessary

“Rhythmically, and for other reasons too, the line should be, ‘Put together an American military response scenario that doesn’t make me think we’re docking somebody’s Goddamn allowance.’ ‘Somebody’s damn allowance’—there is just a hitch in that that’s wrong, and I could not come up with a two-syllable invective at all.”

Aaron Sorkin

Why Journalists Are Better Writers Than Professors (It’s Not Their Fault)

“One reason journalists write well is that journalists write for money: They write for readers. Historically, under the system of scholarly publishing—academic journals and university presses—scholars write for nothing. They have been able to afford to do this because they are paid salaries by the universities that employ them. (Academics rarely meet deadlines because their failure to meet them seldom has any consequence; in this way, too, they are not treated like writers.) And, while academic journals and university presses like to have readers who will pay for what they publish, they have been able to do without them; their publications have been subsidized by the universities that house them. University publishing has suited both scholars who need to publish and presses whose mission is to publish them. It has not rewarded clarity or beauty or timeliness, and it has not made a priority of satisfying readers or earning profits because it was not designed to do any of these things: it was designed to advance scholarship.”

Jill Lepore

The Power of Punctuation

An English professor wrote the following sentence on a chalkboard in class, and asked his students to punctuate it:

“A woman without her man is nothing.”

All the males wrote:

“A woman, without her man, is nothing.”

All the females wrote:

“A woman: without her, man is nothing.”


grok (v): to understand profoundly and intuitively

I strive to grok what differentiates good writing from bad writing.

The Semantics of Interviewing

“The phrase ‘told the Wall Street Journal’ (or ‘told’ another Dow Jones entity) still slips in here and there, but herewith is a reminder that we are to avoid the phrase, which can come off as self-serving to readers. It is redundant if the article already makes it clear that the person said something to us. Speaking of which, we don’t even need to say ‘in an interview’ if that is clear in context.”

The Wall Street Journal

How Do You Pronounce “GIF”?

The majority favors a hard “G” sound, as in “good,” but a vocal minority, including the inventor, insists the “G” is soft, as Jif peanut butter. The Oxford English Dictionary says either is fine.

The 9 Worst Cliches in PR

Via Shawn Paul Wood.

1. At the End of the Day. Let’s just wait until the sun goes down, and maybe Dracula or the Werewolf can kill the next person who says this doltish idiom.

2. Innovate. Since we are so big on this word, how about we please innovate another word that means “my client makes really cool stuff.”

3. Drill Down. Do you work in the petrochemical field? Fancy fracking much? What about a carpentry? Unless you plan to use said power tool, let go of this phrase.

4. Solution. This word is actually important when used correctly, because it’s fairly accurate and descriptive. Unfortunately, it doesn’t solve the need to consultant a thesaurus.

5. Stakeholder. At first, this mysterious person had a stake in the plan. Then, it was a share or a stake, because who knows?! Now, it’s like a bottlenecker driving next to a wreck.

6. Leader. We get it. Journalists get it too. You can’t say your client is “the best” because that sounds too haughty, so masking it as near the front of the pack will help. Only, it never does.

7. Take It Offline. You do realize you we were never online, right? Unless you’re having a chat via IM or Skype, just unplug it.

8. Low-Hanging Fruit. For the love of God, can we simply break this twig so that fruit can roll on down the hill and stop hanging. Set it free already.

9. Open the Kimono. Evidently, there is a rather large and spunky nudist colony in Kyoto because a few PR firms have been fascinated with someone’s private parts. Can we put a full-length trenchcoat on, please?

Fused Participle

Q: Which is correct:

“I appreciate you thinking of me.”


“I appreciate your thinking of me.”

A: “Your thinking of me” is always right. It’s both grammatically correct and stylistically preferred.

I was about to add that “you thinking of me” is always wrong—that is, it’s always ungrammatical and always “works less well” stylistically. But I just looked up the question in Garner’s Modern American Usage, and I’m only 80% right.

“You thinking of me” is called a fused participle. Garner says, “The possessive ought to be used whenever it is not unidiomatic or unnatural.” But he goes on to provide examples where the possessive would sound unnatural.

Don’t Call Terrorists “Masterminds”

“We agree with a recent column in Politico that mastermind when applied to terrorists is overused. Whether used for drama or just out of habit, the term is a cliché and also gives more credit to the terrorists than they usually deserve for their actions, which are certainly planned but hardly the stuff of genius or ‘extraordinary intellect,’ which is the dictionary meaning. People who direct the bombings and shootings can just as easily be called planners, leaders, ringleaders, organizers, plotters or directors of them.”

The Wall Street Journal

20 Masterfully Punny Tweets That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud

1. I’m writing a movie about horses with attitude. Its name: Straight Outta Clomptown

2. “You have to look at the big picture.” —Aggressive museum guard

3. *Submits manuscript to publisher.*

“Sir, is this a drawing of two pie charts having sex?”

“No, it’s a draft of my new graph-fuck novel.”

4. Headline about Chris Rock’s divorce:

Rock’s Papers Scissor Union

5. What idiot called him Alexander Graham Bell instead of the Lord of the Rings?

6. It was the busta rhymes, it was the wursta rhymes.

7. And good Jovi to you, sir.

8. “What should we call this thing in the ocean that is land?”

“How about island?”

“Seems too obvious.”

“What if we pronounced it weird?”


9. Welcome to Plastic Surgery Addicts Anonymous. I see a lot of new faces in the room this week, and I’m very disappointed with you all.”

10. Hey, thanks for defining the word “many” for me. It means a lot.

11. I’ll never forget where I was the day I figured out how to read maps.

12. Kanye West is opening a breakfast restaurant. Its name: Omelette You Finish.

13. Why are they called “territorial disputes” and not “ground beef”?

14. What idiot named them “jet skis” instead of “boatercycles”?

15. John Wilkes Photo Booth takes amazing headshots.

16. I sneezed, and someone responded by giving me a pair of those glasses with the fake nose and mustache attached. It was a blessing in disguise.

17. And the award for best neckwear goes to... Well, would you look at that—it’s a tie.

18. What idiot called it “car repair” instead of “autocorrect”?

19. “I piy the fool!” —Missed a “T”

20. What idiot called it a “vet” instead of “dogtor”?


not only, but also

Q: I was taught, or read, that when you start a sentence with “not only,” the subsequent “but” needs to be accompanied by an “also.” So: “Not only X, but also Y.”

Yet two recent examples, from high-profile publications, omit the “also”:

1. John Heilemann, “Bush’s Big Bomb,” Bloomberg Politics, October 29, 2015:

“What the night required of him, what everyone was watching for, was a demonstration that, despite the myriad troubles that have plagued him months, he could still be the guy: the candidate with the performance skills and the fortitude not just to survive but to thrive under pressure.”

2. Michael Kinsley, “The Courage to Act,” New York Times Sunday Book Review, October 8, 2015:

“If the government stood by and did nothing, the result would be catastrophic not just for those directly involved but for the entire economy.”

What say you?

A: Garner just wrote about this in his October 22 daily tip:

These correlative conjunctions must frame syntactically identical sentence parts—e.g.: “It not only will save construction costs but also the cost of land acquisition and demolition.” Donna Leslie, “Stadium Belongs on the Riverfront,” Cincinnati Enquirer, 23 Nov. 1997, at D3. (A possible revision: “It will save not only construction costs but also the cost of land acquisition and demolition.” The conjunctions correctly frame two noun phrases.)

One common issue in “not only” constructions is whether it’s permissible to omit the “also” after “but.” The answer is yes, the result being a casualism—e.g.: “[Perret] seeks to secure Grant’s reputation not only as a successful general but as a military genius.” Eric Foner, “The Very Good Soldier,” New York Times, 7 Sept. 1997, Section 7, at 13. So how do you decide whether to include “also” (which will always result in a correct construction)? It’s merely a matter of euphony and formality: let your ear and your sense of natural idiom help you decide in a given sentence.

Another way to complete the construction is “not only . . . but . . . as well.” But a writer who uses this phrasing should not add “also,” which is redundant with “as well”—e.g.: “Feminist methods and insights [must] be adopted not only by female scholars, but also by males as well.” J.M. Balkin, “Turandot’s Victory,” 2 Yale J. Law and Humanities 299, 302 (1990). In that sentence, “also” should have been omitted.

No comma is usually needed between the “not only” and “but also” elements, and—as the last citation above shows—to put one in merely introduces an awkward break.

Addendum (12/27/2015): Here’s another example, from the New Yorker, that temple of godly grammar:

3. Anthony Lane, “Doing the Right Thing,” New Yorker, November 9, 2015:

“To stop them turning, in the interests of justice, takes not only guts but imagination.”

Addendum (1/19/2016): From Slate:

4. Will Oremus, “Who Controls Your Facebook Feed,” Slate, January 3, 2016:

“Facebook’s news feed algorithm has shaped not only what we read and how we keep in touch, but how the media frame stories to catch our attention.”

Addendum (2/12/2016): From Time:

5. Nancy Gibbs and Callie Schweitzer, “Meet Motto, Time’s New Site for Advice Worth Sharing,” Time, February 11, 2016:

“They are drawn not only to Time’s coverage of the world but increasingly to Time’s content on how to live a richer, smarter, more meaningful life—how to negotiate a raise, how to manage your inbox, how to actually unplug on vacation.”

communications. communication

In August, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Assistant Editor Emily Vezina replied. (If you can figure this out, youre smarter than I am.)

Q: Can you help me understand the difference between “communications” and “communication,” and when to use which?

For example, do I work in the field of strategic “communications,” or strategic “communication”? Do I help clients polish their “communications” skills, or their “communication” skills? Do I run a digital “communications” firm, or a digital “communication” firm?

I came across this article, but don’t quite understand its explanation—other than that there’s a big difference between these two words, and that I should know it.

A: “Communication” often refers to the simple exchange of information and ideas between people. Here are a few examples from two of our websites (Merriam-Webster.com and LearnersDictionary.com):

  • There was a breakdown in communication between members of the group
  • Parents need to have good communication with their children [they need to be able to understand and be understood by their children]
  • nonverbal communication
  • communication problems/skills
  • from many college/university websites, some form of “Department of Communication and Journalism”

“Communications” (plural) is typically used to describe the following:

  • the field of study of how information is sent to people using technology
  • He majored in communications. (NB: More and more colleges and universities seem to be using the singular to name the department that teachers this subject matter, but I am still seeing more examples of “communications major” rather than “communication major”)
  • the actual technology and ways of sending information
  • radio/wireless/electronic communications
  • a communications satellite (a satellite that is used to send signals for television, radio, etc., to people around the world)
  • the office or personnel at a school or business that is in charge of communicating information to the larger world outside of the organization

An example is Harvard’s Public Affairs and Communications (HPAC) office. Here is the description of their role from their website:

“Harvard Public Affairs and Communications manages and facilitates the University’s relationships with neighboring communities; local, state, and federal government; the media; and the general public. HPAC advances information and communications related to the University’s mission of excellence in teaching, learning, and research through a variety of managed channels and other means including the University’s homepage, the Harvard Gazette, and Harvard’s Information Center.”

Notice the use of “communications” in the description of HPAC. To complicate matters further, “communication” singular can refer to a message or an instance of communicating. It can, therefore, be used in the plural (as it is here) as well as in the singular.

As for your direct questions about your business, without knowing the context of what you do, your individual questions are difficult to answer. If your clients are individual people, I would say that that you help clients polish their communication skills. If your clients are institutions of some kind (schools, businesses, etc.), I’d use “communications skills.” The same basic concept applies to the other two issues as well.

The Rules of English Are Meant to Be a Guide, Not a Straightjacket


Daisy, why don’t you come home with us, and live with me and Colleen for a while?

Colleen and me.

Colleen and me.

What’s your aversion to proper grammar?

Rhythm, maybe.

Leaves of Grass

think. believe

Earlier this month, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor Jennifer N. Cislo replied.

Q: A friend once insisted that “believe” and “think” carry different implications. For example:

If I “believe” that cats are better than dogs, she argued, I suspect it’s true. But if I “think” that cats are better than dogs, I’m certain it’s true.

Is there any truth to this distinction? If not, are the verbs completely interchangeable?

A: A person could parse out these subtleties of meaning. However, for the most part, these words are used by English speakers interchangeably.

In other words, it could be argued that “believe” means “to think it so” without the certainty of the word “think.” But it can also be argued, for instance, if someone were to say “I think it’s spelled that way,” that the someone is saying they “suspect” that’s the correct spelling.

ought. should

Earlier this month, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Editorial Assistant Serenity Carr replied.

Q: Is there any real difference between should and ought? If I tell you that you “ought” clean the house, does that imply the same level of suggestion or seriousness as if I told you that you “should” clean the house?

A: The auxiliaries ought and should are both entered in our dictionaries with usage notes. Ought is “used to express moral obligation, duty, or necessity,” and should is “used . . . to express duty, obligation, necessity, propriety, or expediency.”

The following is found in the synonym discussion at ought in our Unabridged Dictionary:

Ought and should are often interchangeable and imply the compulsion of obligation, ought more commonly suggesting duty or moral constraint, should applying more to the obligation of fitness, propriety, or expediency.”

Brilliant Speeches From the Movies

Thanks to my friend Kevin for identifying and describing these.

1. Star Trek
The famous—or infamous—“risk is our business” speech from William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, delivered in his patented halting, staccato, rapid burst delivery.

2. War and Remembrance
Sir John Gielgud, as Aaron Jastrow, recounts the story of Job to Jews imprisoned Jews at Thiersenstadt (“the paradise ghetto”), most of whom were shipped to Nazi concentration camps and gassed.

3. The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling’s closing narration to the famous Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”

4. The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling’s closing narration to the famous Twilight Zone episode, “Walking Distance.”


Last week, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor Jennifer N. Cislo replied.

Q: “Slick,” as an adjective, seems to have two contradictory meanings:

1. clever in usually a dishonest or deceptive way

2. skillful

Can you clarify? If I tell someone he’s slick, he could rightly construe that as a compliment or an insult, right?

A: You are correct: a statement like that could be construed in either of two ways, as a compliment or as an insult. In a case like this, it really is the context and the situation that suggests the meaning intended.

That’s the wonder of the English language. While words have literal meanings, a communication can be very nuanced.

Corporate Communication at Its Best: Short, Straightforward, Candid

1. The Garage Light
Bring your garage or workshop out of the dark ages with the Garage Light. Hit it with a hammer, whack it with a golf club, hell, run into it with a truck—this light’s going to keep on shining. It’s designed to be durable, efficient and easy-to-install, so it’s the last light your space will ever need. You can even forget about flipping switches—our optional occupancy sensor does it automatically.

The Garage Light is the perfect fixture for any size garage, large or small—but you want to make sure you’re lighting it right! Here’s our basic guidelines:

For typical garages with ceilings up to about 14 ft, you’ll need one Garage Light per car bay. (Single-car garage? Get one light. Two-car? Get two. Sixteen-car? Hot damn, get 16.)

For garages with high ceilings—14 ft or above—just double that. So if you’ve got a single-car garage, get two fixtures; if you have a two-car garage, get four; and for that 16-car garage, grab 32 fixtures. Simple!

2. Less Is More: You’re About to Receive Less Email From LinkedIn
Many of you have told us that you receive too many emails from LinkedIn. We’re also not immune to the late night talk show host jokes. We get it. And we’ve recently begun to make changes so that the emails you receive are more infrequent and more relevant.

Here are two of the most recent examples:

  • If you are getting too many invitations to connect, we have begun to send you a single weekly digest in place of individual emails.
  • If you subscribe to several LinkedIn Groups, we are aggregating the updates from those groups into a single email.

The results so far have been very encouraging. For every 10 emails we used to send, we’ve removed 4 of them. Already, member complaints have been cut in half. And this is just the beginning.

We also want to remind you that we provide the ability to control which emails you want to receive at your desired frequency. All of our emails have an unsubscribe link at the bottom, and you can visit your Settings page to manage your email experience to your liking.

When it comes to your inbox, the message has been received: less is more. We welcome your feedback as we continue to make improvements.

3. Crumbs and Whiskers House Rules

  • Be gentle. And remember that cats are curious, so they will naturally come to you.
  • Cats are… cats. If something goes wrong, please don’t sue the humans. To be safe, we ask that you sign a liability waiver before you visit.
  • Cats eat cat food. People eat people food. Let’s keep it that way.
  • Please don’t wake a sleeping cat. They hate it.
  • Just like us, cats have “stranger danger” instincts too—please don’t pick up cats. It keeps you safe, and the cats stress free.
  • Flash photography hurts. But general photography is awesome.

Addendum (9/27/2015): More corporatese in plain language:

4. Apple

We’re pleased that you want to invest your talents and time to develop applications for iOS. It has been a rewarding experience - both professionally and financially - for hundreds of thousands of developers and we want to help you join this successful group. We have published our App Store Review Guidelines in the hope that they will help you steer clear of issues as you develop your App and speed you through the approval process when you submit it.

We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical App. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store. It may help to keep some of our broader themes in mind:

  • We have lots of kids downloading lots of Apps. Parental controls work great to protect kids, but you have to do your part too. So know that we’re keeping an eye out for the kids.
  • We have over a million Apps in the App Store. If your App doesn’t do something useful, unique or provide some form of lasting entertainment, or if your app is plain creepy, it may not be accepted.
  • If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you’re trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection. We have lots of serious developers who don’t want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour.
  • We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.
  • If your App is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps.
  • If you attempt to cheat the system (for example, by trying to trick the review process, steal data from users, copy another developer’s work, or manipulate the ratings) your Apps will be removed from the store and you will be expelled from the developer program.
  • This is a living document, and new Apps presenting new questions may result in new rules at any time. Perhaps your App will trigger this.

Lastly, we love this stuff too, and honor what you do. We’re really trying our best to create the best platform in the world for you to express your talents and make a living too. If it sounds like we’re control freaks, well, maybe it’s because we’re so committed to our users and making sure they have a quality experience with our products. Just like almost all of you are, too.

When Style Trumps Substance

Most namers will tell you, as Paola Norambuena puts it, that a “great name can’t fix a bad product. A great product can fix a bad name.” Accenture was met with derision for reminding people of dentures. Gap was an empty space. Yelp was a dog in pain. The iPad was confused with a tampon. Now these names have no odd connotations at all, thanks to the success of the things they name.

The Weird Science of Naming New Products

Frame the Conversation

Has Become This
estate tax
death tax
government takeover of healthcare
Department of War
Department of Defense
enhanced interrogation techniques
dolphin fish
mahi mahi
Patagonian toothfish
Chilean sea bass
dried plums

Addendum (8/4/2015): A Renegade Trawler, Hunted for 10,000 Miles by Vigilantes:

“Consumer demand for toothfish skyrocketed in the 1980s and 1990s after a Los Angeles-based seafood wholesaler decided to rename the oily fish Chilean sea bass to make it more appealing to the American market. An ugly bottom dweller, found only in the earth’s coldest waters, the toothfish can grow over six feet long and weigh more than 250 pounds. The rebranding worked a little too well. More fishing boats targeted toothfish, and now some scientists say that its population is disappearing at an unsustainable rate, though it is unclear how fast.”

Write for an Audience of One

Second to his investing brilliance, Warren Buffet is known for having a deep-rooted respect for clear communication within companies. His shareholder letters are so well written that they’re considered the gold standard for the medium.

Buffet’s secret: he writes with one of his sisters in mind. His sister, while highly intelligent, has little experience with investing. If he sees a passage that will confuse her, he knows he hasn’t written it properly.

Novelist Stephen King suggests the same approach. He pictures his wife combing through each line. Where would she become bored, laugh, be surprised, or skim? He knew the answer because he knew the reader. John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, and others have also advocated this approach.

  • “Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader.” —John Steinbeck

  • “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” —Kurt Vonnegut

  • “Writing to delight a single person whose tastes you understand is practical; writing to appease a faceless audience whose tastes you will never know is impossible.” —Gregory Ciotti

  • Christopher Buckley says that he senses William Zinsser perched on his shoulder like a parrot when he sits down to write. The parrot always says to look for needless verbiage.

leitmotif. motif

Last week, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor Neil Serven replied.

Q: motif means “a dominant idea or central theme.” leitmotif means “a dominant recurring theme.” So, how do these two words differ?

A: In extended use, “motif” and “leitmotif” have very similar meanings.

“Motif” suggests an idea that recurs like a pattern (as in design or architecture), but there is enough extended use that flattens the word to mean simply “theme”:

In retrospect, it is now clear that the alien invasion motif in 1950s science fiction movies reflected the Cold War atmosphere of the period.—Paul A. Cantor, Gilligan Unbound, 2001

Apart from giving us a great deal of new information on the Holloways, Ricketts argues very convincingly for a motif of abandonment in much of Kipling’s writing, including the Jungle Books, Kim and Captains Courageous.—Elizabeth Lowry, Times Literary Supplement, 19 Feb 1999

“Leitmotif” is a term originating from opera; it referred to a recurring melody that played along with a character or allusion to a theme whenever one or the other appeared on stage. Its extended use doesn’t follow up from the original as fluidly as “motif” does, but it does share with “motif” the meaning of simply “a recurring theme”:

Conspiracies are a leitmotif of talk radio, even its organizing principle-the bond that unites millions of voters, each in a separate car, driving and listening and, from time to time, pounding the steering wheel in frustration.—James Ridgeway, Village Voice, 14 June 1994

Ms. Silverthorne suggests in “Sojourner at Cross Creek” that a leitmotif of Rawlings’s life was betrayal or the fear of it, an anxiety that developed following the end of her first marriage, in 1933, and lasting the rest of her life.—Jerome Griswold, New York Times Book Review, 20 Nov. 1988

I would say that the two words are practically synonymous, though “leitmotif,” due to its origins and particularly its ties to narrative, might be more likely to be found in literary or academic contexts. I think more than a few writers use it as a fancy-sounding substitute for “motif.”

Candor Beats Jargon Every Time

Simon Owens points us to this remarkably candid statement from Reddit:

“We know many of you will wonder what happened to /r/politics and /r/atheism and why they were removed from the default set. We could give you a canned corporate answer or a diplomatic answer that is carefully crafted for the situation. But since this is reddit, we’re going to try things a bit differently and give you the real answer: they just weren’t up to snuff. Now, don’t get us wrong, there still are good parts about them. Overall, they just haven’t continued to grow and evolve like the other subreddits we’ve decided to add.”

Related: The Candid, Commendable Way to Announce You Were Just Fired

off of

Rose needles David about the amount of money he reaped off of Seinfeld in syndication.

Rose needles David about the amount of money he reaped off Seinfeld in syndication.

Rose needles David about the amount of money he reaped from Seinfeld in syndication.

Larry David Woefully “Regrets” His Broadway Debut in Fish in the Dark

Addendum (6/10/2015): The Wall Street Journal calls the phrase “off of” grating and substandard.

You Are How You Punctuate

“Digital punctuation can carry more weight than traditional writing because it ends up conveying tone, rhythm and attitude rather than grammatical structure.”

Ben Zimmer

lectern. podium

lectern: what public speakers stand behind

podium: a raised platform, such as what Olympic medalists stand upon as well as speakers who don’t need the protection of a lectern

Style & Substance

Damn Fine Writing

“Leading network news anchor Brian Williams has been placed on double-public probation by NBC News for six months, and won’t likely return to his throne. Meanwhile, over on the cable end of the dial, top news-jester Jon Stewart has told Comedy Central he’s done with the big chair and wants to do something else. Their coincidentally simultaneous exits have created something akin to a full employment act for the press corps—with endless news coverage from the hard-news guys and reflections and verdicts from members of the commentariat. Even I got two columns out of the Williams affair, and at the urging my editors, here I am on my third!”

Jack Shafer

Why You Need an Editor

“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” —James Michener

“Writing is one percent inspiration, and 99% inspiration.” —Louise Brooks

“The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lighting and the lightning bug.” —Mark Twain

The Dying Art of Proofreading

Did I Read That Sign Right?

In a Laundromat

In a London Department Store

In an Office

In an Office

Outside a Secondhand Shop

In a Health-Food Shop Window

In a Safari Park

During a Conference

In a Farmer's Field

On a Leaflet

On a Repair-Shop Door


Man Kills Self Before Shooting Wife and Daughter
How's that possible?

Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says
Really? Ya think?

Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
Now that's taking things a bit far!

Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
What a guy!

Miners Refuse to Work after Death
No-good-for-nothing' lazy so-and-so's!

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
See if that works better than a fair trial!

War Dims Hope for Peace
I can see where it might have that effect!

If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile
Ya think?

Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures
Who would have thought!

Enfield [London] Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide
They may be on to something!

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges
You mean there's something stronger than duct tape?

Man Struck by Lightning; Faces Battery Charge
He probably is the battery charge!

New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
Weren't they fat enough?!

Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
That's what he gets for eating those beans!

Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
Do they taste like chicken?

Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
Chainsaw massacre all over again!

Hospitals Are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
Boy, are they tall!

Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
Did I read that right?

Bad Writing Wastes Millions and Millions of Hours

“Thirty students send me attachments named ‘psych assignment.doc.’ I go to a website for a trusted-traveler program and have to decide whether to click on GOES, Nexus, GlobalEntry, Sentri, Flux or FAST—bureaucratic terms that mean nothing to me. My apartment is cluttered with gadgets that I can never remember how to use because of inscrutable buttons which may have to be held down for one, two or four seconds, sometimes two at a time, and which often do different things depending on invisible ‘modes’ toggled by still other buttons.”

Steven Pinker

The Headline Pun Hall of Fame

Complaints about the overuse of puns
Shun Puns? No, Hon. More Pun-Ishment Coming!
Action-movie special-effects detonation experts
Business Is Booming!
The funeral industry
Is Death a Laughing Matter? Of Corpse Not!
Journalists who want to be forced to testify against sources, so they can decline, and be heroes
Subpoenas Envy
A plumber who used only a plunger and his own massive strength to relieve a toilet clog after an industrial-strength machine snake had failed
A Modern-Day John Henry, a Stool-Drivin’ Man
The guy whose job was to empty porta-potties
Waste Is a Terrible Thing to Mind
The guy whose job it was to watch parolees pee into cups during drug tests
Looking Out for Number One

“Don’t Do This” vs. “Please Do That”

“An easy way to fall into the negativity trap is to start listing out things people shouldn’t do. Don’t leave uneaten food in the office refrigerator. Don’t be late to the meeting. Even saying ‘don’t forget’ is more negative than saying ‘remember.’

“Instead of telling others what not to do, try telling them what they should do. Please take your lunches home at the end of the day. Please arrive for the meeting five minutes early.

“People are much more likely to comply with a positive request than a negative complaint on their behavior.

Bernard Marr

Speak English, Man!

Coca-Cola recently announced its results for Q3 2014. As a result, shares of KO sank 6%. The explanation, according to CEO Muhtar Kent: Coke is struggling with “a challenged disposable-income growth environment.” Gee, thanks for clearing that up!

My Favorite Movie and TV Monologues

1. A Few Good Men

2. The Newsroom

3. Pulp Fiction

4. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

5. Malice

6. The West Wing

7. Scent of a Woman

8. A Time to Kill

9. Glengarry Glen Ross

10. Good Will Hunting

11. Scandal

12. The West Wing

13. Demolition Man

14. The Wolf of Wall Street

15. Charlie Wilson’s War

16. Entourage

17. Entourage

18. Independence Day

19. The American President

20. Any Given Sunday

21. Network

22. Catch Me if You Can

23. Wall Street

24. American Gangster

25. Boiler Room

26. Boiler Room

27. Bulworth

28. Whiplash

29. Up in the Air

30. Sports Night

31. Sports Night

32. Sports Night

My Favorite Movie Dialogues

1. Breaking Bad

2. The Social Network

3. The Social Network

4. The Social Network

5. Primary Colors

6. The West Wing

7. Good Will Hunting

8. Shawshank Redemption

Why You Should Use Analogies

Do you know what a “pomelo” is? If not, consider these competing definitions:

1. A pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart.

2. A pomelo is basically a supersized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind.

Which is better? The first infuses the definition with detail; the second draws an accessible analogy.

In Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath argue that the second version works better because it “taps the existing memory terrain of your audience. You use what’s already there.”

That’s the power of an analogy.

Is Your Best Language in the Best Location?

Every joke you’ve ever heard is predicated on this principle: saving the most important line for the end.

Here’s an example from Macbeth. Which one is best?

1. The Queen, my Lord, is dead.

2. My Lord, the Queen is dead.

3. The Queen is dead, my Lord.

Answer: #1. Because it creates a crescendo, which culminates at the end.

heading. header

Earlier this month, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor Jennifer N. Cislo replied.

Q: Merriam-Webster gives the exact same definition for the words “heading” and “header”:

“a word, phrase, etc., that is placed at the beginning of a document, passage, etc., or at the top of a page”

So, how do these two words differ, if at all? Is one more common than the other? (For what it’s worth, a simple search of Google returns 80.3 million results for “heading” and 43.4 million for “header.”)

A: The two words are synonymous in this sense. As you’ve discerned from your Google search, “heading” is the more commonly used of the two.

The Only Argument You’ll Ever Need to Favor the Active Voice

Passive Voice
Active Voice
It Was Heard Through the Grapevine by Me
I Heard It Through the Grapevine
You Will Always Be Loved by Me
I Will Always Love You
My Heart Was Left by Me in San Francisco
I Left My Heart in San Francisco
You Are Loved by Her
And I Love Her

The Metaphors of Dr. Gregory House

1. An MRI

Foreman: We inject gadolinium into a vein. It distributes itself throughout your brain and acts as a contrast material for the magnetic resonance imager.

Chase: Basically, whatever’s in your head lights up like a Christmas tree.

2. Bad News

Movement disorder or degenerative brain disease? Either way, this kid’s gonna be picking up his diploma in diapers and a wheelchair.

3. An Electroencephalography

Get him an EEG... If this thing wants to talk, let’s listen.

4. The Immune System

Infections are the criminals; the immune system’s the police.

5. The Liver

The liver is like a cruise ship taking in water. As it starts to sink, it sends out an SOS. Only instead of radio waves, it uses enzymes. The more enzymes in the blood, the worse the liver is. But once the ship has sunk, there’s no more SOS. You think the liver’s fine, but it’s already at the bottom of the sea.

Which Headline Would You Click?

Uber Hires Top Obama Adviser David Plouffe As New “Campaign Manager”
David Plouffe Joins Uber As “Campaign Manager”
Uber Hires Former Obama Advisor (and Shady Telecoms Consultant) David Plouffe to Lead Insurgent War
Uber Hired David Plouffe When It Realized “Techies” Can’t Do Politics
Uber Picks Political Insider to Wage Regulatory Fight
The New York Times
Uber Puts Former Obama Campaign Chief in Charge of Its Image
Uber Snags David Plouffe, DC Heavyweight and Former Obama Campaign Manager
Uber Just Hired Obama’s Political Guru to Battle “Big Taxi Cartel”

Being Wordy Is Easy. Being Concise Is Hard

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

Blaise Pascal

Addendum (1/14/2015):

“If you’d like me to speak for five minutes, I’ll need a month to prepare. If you’d like me to speak for 20 minutes, I’ll need two weeks. But if you’d like me to speak for an hour, I’m ready right now.”

Woodrow Wilson

The 4 Criteria to Write the Perfect Analogy

1. Use the Familiar to Explain the Less Familiar

The first job of a persuasive analogy is to use something familiar to explain something less familiar.

2. Highlight Similarities and Obscure Differences

The second job of a persuasive analogy is to highlight similarities and obscure differences. In any analogy, there are going to be similar­ities and differences between the objects of comparison. The key is determining which are most relevant.

3. Tell a Coherent Story

In an uncertain world, stories offer us emotional reassurance, and coherent stories offer more reassurance. Coherent stories are easier to grasp. And when stories are easier to grasp, listeners are more apt to accept both the storyteller and their story’s conclusions as credible.

4. Resonate Emotionally

Emotions, once triggered, are like a genie released from a bottle—hard to recapture and cork. And given that emotion often trumps rea­son, this is one reason why analogies can be so hard to parry. That is, in addition to whatever intrinsic logical parallels analogies may reveal or assert, the most persuasive analogies also make an intuitive, emo­tional appeal that often transcends logic.

—Adapted from John Pollack

The Easiest Way to Improve Your Writing: Read the Work of First-Rate Writers

1. Here’s an example from last weekend’s Times magazine:

“Paying to simulate backbreaking labor under the watchful eye of a demanding authority figure seems to be a common desire these days. When I type ‘sledgehammer’ into Google later that day, the first suggestion is ‘sledgehammer workout,’ a search term that pours forth half a dozen enthusiastic re-enactments of life on a steel-driving chain gang. . . .

“CrossFitters represent just one wave of a fitness sea change, in which well-to-do Americans abandon easy, convenient forms of exercise in favor of workouts grueling enough to resemble a kind of physical atonement. For the most privileged among us, freedom seems to feel oppressive, and oppression feels like freedom. There’s also a very American fixation on extremes at play: more is always better. If you’re running just four miles a day and doing a few pull-ups, you’re a wimp compared with the buff dude who’s ready for an appearance on American Ninja Warrior. It’s hard not to feel awe when you watch a middle-aged woman in a Never Quit T-shirt clean-and-jerk huge weights. And it’s hardly a stretch to go from lifting a 35-pound kettlebell to wondering why you can’t run half a mile with it, especially when a CrossFit coach is right there, urging you to ‘crush it.’ Common wisdom seems to dictate that it’s not enough to look good and feel good if you’re not prepared to lift a Mini Cooper off an injured stranger.

“The whole notion of pushing your physical limits—popularized by early Nike ads, Navy SEAL mythos and Lance Armstrong’s cult of personality—has attained a religiosity that’s as passionate as it is pervasive. The ‘extreme’ version of anything is now widely assumed to be an improvement on the original rather than a perverse amplification of it. And as with most of sports culture, there is no gray area. You win or you lose. You leave it all on the floor or you shamefully skulk off the floor with extra gas in your tank.

Heather Havrilesky

2. And from Nerve.com:

“There are 206.3 million blogs on Tumblr. About 11.4% of the top 200,000 are teeming with porn, adult-oriented videos, and otherwise NSFW content. The streams are filled with limbs, enterings, openings, and finishings—noted, liked, reblogged. It’s a moving menagerie of couples grinding in grainy GIFs, penetrating in JPGs, and topped off by third party-hosted videos replete with the moans and breathy articulations pictures simply don’t capture. Their bed is always open for the curious passersby; all you need to do is click.”

Kate Hakala

Shonda Rhimes Is a Brilliant Writer—and Joe Morton Is a Brilliant Actor

ROWAN: You’re funny. You’re a funny, funny man.

FITZ: I am?

ROWAN: Or should I say boy? You’re a boy. You’ve been coddled, and cared for, pampered and hugged. For you it’s always summertime. And the livin’ is easy. Daddy’s rich, your momma’s good looking, you’re a Grant. You got money in your blood. You… are… a… boy. I’m a man.

I have worked for every single thing I have ever received. I have fought and scraped and bled for every inch of ground I walk on. I was the first in my family to go to college. My daughter went to boarding school with the children of kings. I made that happen. You cried yourself to sleep because daddy hurt your feelings. Because papa banged his secretary. Because it hurt to have so much money. You spoiled, entitled, ungrateful little brat! You have everything handed to you on a silver platter, and you squander it. You’re given the world and you can’t appreciate it because you haven’t had to work for anything!

Aaron Sorkin Reveals How to Write Unforgettable Dialogue

You want the benefits of free trade? Food is cheaper.


Food is cheaper. Clothes are cheaper, steel is cheaper, cars are cheaper, phone service is cheaper. You feel me building a rhythm here? That’s ‘cause I’m a speechwriter and I know how to make a point.


It lowers prices, it raises income. You see what I did with “lowers” and “raises” there?


It’s called the science of listener attention. We did repetition, we did floating opposites, and now you end with the one that’s not like the others. Ready?

Free trade stops wars. And that’s it. Free trade stops wars! And we figure out a way to fix the rest. One world, one peace—I’m sure I’ve seen that on a sign somewhere.

Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail

Addendum (11/22/2014): Here’s another West Wing explainer, wherein President Bartlet extols the virtues of being an “oratorical snob”:

“Words. Words when spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music. They have rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume. These are the properties of music, and music has the ability to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t.”

47 Spelling Mistakes You’re Making Without Even Realizing It

  1. One buys antiques in an antiques store from an antiques dealer; an antique store is a very old store.
  2. He stayed awhile; he stayed for a while.
  3. Besides is other than; beside is next to.
  4. The singular of biceps is biceps; the singular of triceps is triceps. There’s no such thing as a bicep; there’s no such thing as a tricep.
  5. A blond man, a blond woman; he’s a blond, she’s a blonde.
  6. Something centers on something else, not around it.
  7. If you’re talking about a thrilling plot point, the word is climactic; if you’re discussing the weather, the word is climatic.
  8. A cornet is an instrument; a coronet is a crown.
  9. One emigrates from a place; one immigrates to a place.
  10. The word is enmity, not emnity.
  11. One goes to work every day, or nearly, but eating lunch is an everyday occurrence.
  12. A flair is a talent; a flare is an emergency signal.
  13. A flier is someone who flies planes; a flyer is a piece of paper.
  14. Flower bed, not flowerbed.
  15. Free rein, not free reign.
  16. To garner is to accumulate, as a waiter garners tips; to garnish (in the non-parsley meaning) is to take away, as the government garnishes one’s wages; a garnishee is a person served with a garnishment; to garnishee is also to serve with a garnishment (that is, it’s a synonym for “to garnish”).
  17. A gel is a jelly; it’s also a transparent sheet used in stage lighting. When Jell-O sets, or when one’s master plan takes final form, it either jells or gels (though I think the former is preferable).
  18. Bears are grizzly; crimes are grisly. Cheap meat, of course, is gristly.
  19. Coats go on hangers; planes go in hangars.
  20. One’s sweetheart is “hon,” not “hun,” unless one’s sweetheart is Attila (not, by the way, Atilla) or perhaps Winnie-the-Pooh (note hyphens).
  21. One insures cars; one ensures success; one assures people.
  22. Lawn mower, not lawnmower.
  23. The past tense of lead is led, not lead.
  24. One loathes someone else but is loath to admit one’s distaste.
  25. If you’re leeching, you’re either bleeding a patient with a leech or otherwise sucking someone’s or something’s lifeblood. If you’re leaching, you’re removing one substance from another by means of a percolating liquid (I have virtually no idea what that means; I trust that you do).
  26. Masseurs are men; masseuses are women. Many otherwise extremely well educated people don’t seem to know this; I have no idea why. (These days they’re all called massage therapists anyway.)
  27. The short version of microphone is still, so far as Random House is concerned, mike. Not, ick, mic.
  28. There’s no such word as moreso.
  29. Mucus is a noun; mucous is an adjective.
  30. Nerve-racking, not -wracking; racked with guilt, not wracked with guilt.
  31. One buys a newspaper at a newsstand, not a newstand.
  32. An ordinance is a law; ordnance is ammo.
  33. Palette has to do with color; palate has to do with taste; a pallet is, among other things, something you sleep on.
  34. Nounwise, a premier is a diplomat; a premiere is something one attends. Premier is also, of course, an adjective denoting quality.
  35. That which the English call paraffin (as in “paraffin stove”), we Americans call kerosene. The term paraffin should generally be reserved for the waxy, oily stuff we associate with candles.
  36. Prophecy is a noun; prophesy is a verb.
  37. It’s restroom.
  38. The Sibyl is a seeress; Sybil is Basil Fawlty’s wife.
  39. Please don’t mix somewhat and something into one murky modifier. A thing is somewhat rare, or it’s something of a rarity.
  40. A tick bites; a tic is a twitch.
  41. Tortuous is twisty, circuitous, or tricky; torturous is painful, or painfully slow.
  42. Transsexual, not transexual.
  43. Troops are military; troupes are theatrical.
  44. A vice is depraved; a vise squeezes.
  45. Vocal cords; strikes a chord.
  46. A smart aleck is a wise guy; a mobster is a wiseguy.
  47. X ray is a noun; X-ray is a verb or adjective.

Benjamin Dreyer